“Hillsong, Once a Leader of Christian Cool, Loses Footing in America.”
By now, headlines like this one (from a March 29 New York Times article by Ruth Graham) have become sadly predictable. It seems almost every “leader of Christian cool”—whether a tattooed celebrity pastor or a buzzy nightclub church—flames out and loses its footing fairly quickly. Which is not at all surprising. By their very nature, things that are cool are ephemeral. What’s fashionable is, by the necessity of the rules of fashion, quickly obsolete.
This is one of many reasons why chasing cool is a fool’s errand for churches and pastors, as I argue in my book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. If you prioritize short-term trendiness, your ministry impact will likely be short-lived. If you care too much about being “relatable” and attractive to the fickle tastes of any given generation or cultural context, the transcendence of Christianity and the prophetic power of the gospel will be shrunk and shaped to the contours of the zeitgeist. Relevance-focused Christianity sows the seeds of its own obsolescence. It’s a bad idea. It rarely ends well.
Lament and Learn
From the Mars Hills to the Hillsongs (and countless others), it’s tragic to see churches fail—however predictable and ill-advised the “cool church” arc may be. We don’t rejoice over this. We should lament and learn.
What are the lessons?
For one, these headlines ought to remind us that relevance is no substitute for reverence and indeed may compromise it. The Christian life shouldn’t be oriented around being liked; it should be oriented around loving God and loving others. Far more important than being fashionable is being faithful. Far more crucial than keeping up with the Joneses is staying rooted in God’s unchanging Word.
Relevance is no substitute for reverence and indeed may compromise it.
Things like confession and repentance, daily obedience to the whole counsel of Scripture, and quiet commitment to spiritual disciplines aren’t cutting edge and won’t land you in a GQ profile about “hypepriests.” But these are the things that make up a healthy, sustainable, “long obedience in the same direction” faith. And with every hip church that closes and celebrity pastor who falls, more and more Christians are hopefully waking up to this fact.
Maybe boring, uncool, unabashedly churchy church is actually a good thing. Maybe a Christianity that doesn’t appeal to my consumer preferences and take its cues from Twitter is exactly the sort of faith I need.
Short-Term Success, Long-Term Failure
It’s counterintuitive, though. In the moment, a large church crowded with 20-somethings—eager to hear the celebrity pastor’s sermon and enthusiastic in their singing of arena-rock worship songs—seems like an unassailable triumph. Because our metrics for success in the American church have for so long mirrored the metrics of market-driven capitalism (bigger is always better; audience is king), we assume if a “cool church” is packed to the gills with cool kids, it’s working.
But if it’s “working,” then why do so many of these “cool kids” end up deconstructing, leaving the faith, and quitting church within a decade? I’ve seen it too often. The long-term outcomes for the hipster church movement are abysmal. There are many reasons why deconstruction is surging among millennial Christians, but I’m convinced one big cause is that the “relevant” churches that reared these kids set them on a flimsy faith foundation. Instead of being firmly rooted in the old, old story, their churches framed faith in terms of the new. Instead of being called to holiness, their churches called them to relevance. Instead of being steeped in doctrine, robust ecclesiology, and theological orthodoxy, they were steeped in moralistic therapeutic deism.
The long-term results speak for themselves.
Faithful > Cool
For those who were part of churches like this, you are right to be jaded. It’s no wonder you’re deconstructing. But there’s a better way.
Instead of the cool church full of people who look like models, find the most faithful church full of people who are growing to look like Jesus.
Instead of the church where everyone shares the same tastes in style and music, find the church where everyone shares a passion for Jesus, his Word, and pursuing holiness.
Maybe a Christianity that doesn’t appeal to my consumer preferences and take its cues from Twitter is exactly the sort of faith I need.
Instead of the church with the most charismatic celebrity pastor (who you’ll likely never meet), find the church where Jesus is the biggest star and the pastor is a humble, approachable, low-profile guy with a long track record of integrity in life and ministry.
Instead of the church of “reinvented” or “fresh” Christianity, where discontinuity with the past is a virtue (“We’re not your grandma’s church!”), find one where Christian history and tradition are known and celebrated—where continuity with the past is treasured.
Instead of the church that caters to your comfort, always affirming but never challenging you, find one where you’ll be uncomfortable in a way that pushes you to grow, a church where holiness is more important than a “seeker-sensitive” experience.
This last one has been especially transformative in my own faith—which I wrote about in my book Uncomfortable. Once we embrace the inevitable awkwardness, discomfort, and cost of Christian discipleship, we won’t be surprised by challenges at church. We’ll stick with local church life even when it’s hard, and thus we’ll have a better chance to grow. Once we embrace the uncool but beautiful reality of the local church, our faith will likely become more gritty and sustainable.
Ecclesial Health After Sickly Cool
This is consistent with feedback I’ve received from readers—often former hipsters—over the years when I’ve written on “cool church” issues. They share how their faith has thrived more in uncool, not-hype churches. Just last week I received this message:
Sadly most of my friends who sought to be a part of “cool Christianity” have walked away from God. . . . I’m probably in the most “boring” church I’ve ever been a part of, but have never felt more loved as part of a church family, had as solid teaching, and grown the most in my faith as a result of it.
Another reader wrote: “My desire for ‘cool church’ was like an add-on to the gospel. Jesus wasn’t enough, so my church social circle had to also make me feel better about myself.”
These testimonies are encouraging. While some veterans of “cool churches” end up deconstructing or quitting church entirely, others come to see that being the Bride of Christ is beautiful and worth it, even if she’s dressed in a frumpy Kohl’s frock rather than the latest runway couture.
In a world of dizzyingly disposable trends, so much seems to collapse as quickly as it arrives: brands, celebrities, movements, institutions, ideas. When we misconstrue faith as just another thing in the consumerist stew, it too becomes a flash-in-the-pan fashion, as fragile and fickle as the latest viral trend on TikTok.
The life of Christian faith should be altogether different: a long obedience, a slow burn, a quiet diligence to pursue Jesus faithfully, with others in community, in good times and bad, for better or for worse. Will this form of plodding, old-fashioned Christianity go viral on Instagram or get featured in GQ? Probably not. But it will actually grow Christians to maturity and help them run a long, steady, and fruitful race, as it has for countless saints over two millennia. I pray that I—and you, too—will be counted among them.